Hidden in Plain Sight

Vintage cookbooks offer a fascinating glimpse into the cultures and foodways of yesteryear. Many times these gems slip into oblivion, and the knowledge and history they represent is forgotten. At the University of Michigan, Special Collections Curator  Juli McLoonen and Adjunct Curator Jan Longone are doing their best to make sure one special old cookbook is remembered. As part of the Michigan NPR series ‘Hidden in Plain Sight’, 89.1 WEMU’s Jorge Avellan brings us their story.

The cookbook in question is the only known original of a tome published in 1866,  by Malinda Russell. It is the oldest known cookbook authored by an African-American. The book provides insight not only on what types of foods were popular at the time, it also shows us a broader picture of how people lived with its section on household hints and formulas. You’ll find ‘recipes’ for barbers shampooing mixture, cologne, cures for corns, treatment for restoring hair to its original color, and treatment for tooth ache. The section is a reminder that so many things we purchase today – as well as a significant portion of health care – was relegated to the home.

Of course there are plenty of culinary recipes too, with an emphasis on pastries and baked good since Russell was a free black woman who owned a pastry shop for six years. “There’s an allspice cake, a coconut sponge cake, a couple of different lemon cakes. Interestingly, we think of vanilla as the standard cake flavor today, but in the 19th century, lemon cake would have filled that role. A lot of times rose water was also used for flavoring cakes and pastries. She has a charlotte russe recipe, a baked peach cobbler, she has few savory recipes like a chicken pie, chow chow, catfish, also a number of custards. Also a lot of jams and preserves, so cranberry jam, a couple of different quince jams,” said McLoone.

You can see Russell’s self-published book in person by making an appointment with the Special Collections Research Center at the University of Michigan. ‘A Domestic Cook Book’ is part of the Janice Bluestein Longone Culinary Archive. You can also view a digital version posted on the university’s website.

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